Year

2010

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

School of Psychology

Abstract

Counterfactual thinking refers to our everyday thoughts of ‘what if’ and ‘if only’ when we consider an outcome and ponder over how it could have been better (upward counterfactuals) or worse (downward counterfactuals). Extensive research has investigated the nature and consequences of such thinking in the adult population. However, uncertainty is present in the functionalist account of counterfactual thinking as to how the consideration of both better and worse alternatives impacts one’s affective and preparatory feelings. The consequences arising from counterfactual thinking in the event of positive outcomes also requires clarification, as does the role of downward counterfactual generation. Further, limited research has examined counterfactual thinking and its resulting consequences in preadolescent children. Subsequently, this thesis aimed to address these primary concerns in a series of six experiments. Experiments 1a (N = 152) and 1b (N = 115) each consisted of a hypothetical scenario task and personal reflection task (mixed outcome valence); Experiments 2a (N = 86) and 2b (N = 94) were performance oriented anagram tasks with manipulated positive and negative outcomes; and Experiments 3a (N = 121) and 3b (N = 81) were positively valenced hypothetical scenario and anagram tasks respectively, conducted with children aged 9 to 11 years. Affect and preparedness were measured in each of the six experiments and self-efficacy was also assessed in the anagram tasks to extend upon Tal-or, Boninger, and Gleicher (2004). In the event of positive outcomes, it was found that upward counterfactuals exerted the greatest (and detrimental) influence on adults’ and children’s affect, while downward counterfactuals resulted in a stable to improved affective state for adults, but like upward counterfactuals, had a tendency to exert a mood-depressive effect in children. The sequential consideration of both directions of counterfactuals showed no beneficial advantage in the event of positive or negative outcomes, but did result in the hypothesised mood neutralisation for neutral valenced outcomes. Stable to improved mood commonly arising from downward counterfactual generation appeared to be associated with greater feelings of preparedness. Given the findings of the negatively valenced outcomes as detailed in this thesis, and the apparent discord with the majority of the literature, it is argued that situational and dispositional factors exert a substantial influence over counterfactual thinking and its resulting consequences. Overall, the present research demonstrated that it is advantageous for adults to consider worse alternatives to reality in the event of positive outcomes, and that encouraging children to merely think counterfactually may be advantageous to their experiential learning, thus enabling them to strive for future improvement.

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